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Who Put the Us in Genesis?

Divine councilIn Genesis 1:26, we find, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

Genesis 3:22 reads, “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

These are two of the most profound, yet debated, theological statements in the whole of Scripture—The nature of humanity’s image bearer status in creation, and the nature of humanity’s corruption as a species of sinners.

These passages raise another question however. Who is the “us”? Who constitutes “our”?

There are a few different theories about the “us” in Genesis. I will not claim to have the perfect answer, but I do tend to rejects some theories and to seriously consider others.

1. Some think that “us” refers to the Trinity. They use the idea of the plural ending in Hebrew on the word elohim/God to insist that these are remarks aimed at the Angel of the Lord/the Son, and the Spirit of YHWH/Holy Spirit by YHWH/the father.[1]

The biggest boost for this position regards the follow through of the creation of man in “our” image… saying in Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him. The singular image of God/he fulfills the intention of “Let us make man in our image,” as does, Genesis 1:29  “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth.” See, some will say, the “us” is God alone, speaking to “his” Trinitarian-self when considering and “I” and “he” when acting.

I am, nonetheless, disinclined toward this idea. Firstly, it seeks to take categories that emerge later in the New Testament and force them on much older texts in the Old Testament that have different categories at work. Depending on one’s dating theory, a Millennium or two passes between these two sets of categories and the exact correlation between them is hard to depict while being honest with the historical, grammatical and literary contexts of their employment. Secondly, I think there is a better understanding of the switch between first and third person singular and first person plural pronouns in these, and two other contexts in which this takes place.

Now, there is a plural ending on the word elohim/god, but the Hebrews used “plural” endings to represent more than plurality in nouns. It just Isn’t good Hebrew to say it does. Trinity is real… I just don’t see it being employed here through a “plural spelling” of elohim.

While we find the form elohim throughout the Old Testament, we do not find plural pronouns being attached to YHWH or Elohim save in a two other instances. Genesis 11:7 has God speaking over the tower of Babel, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language,” but acts in the singular in the pronouns woven into the Hebrew verbs in Genesis 11:8, “So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.” Isaiah 6:8, (Compare Genesis 1:29) switches from 1st person singular to 1st person plural saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Other than this, however, God speaks of Himself exclusively in 1st person singular.

The proper conclusion of both the predominant use of 1st person singular self-reference and the exclusive use of singular pronouns of action is that YHWH is speaking to someone other than Himself and not in some inner Trinitarian dialogue.

2. Some think that the plural ending on elohim/god is a PLURAL OF  MAGESTY, which I agree it is. Of all the “gods,” all the “el” elohim is the supreme “el.”This is an uncomfortable suggestion for many Christians, but may I recommend my post Why the Word “God” Makes Me Uncomfortable in order to digest some of this. This is not paganism… not in Israel anyway.

Some make what I believe a mistake by using this plural of majesty to explain the plural pronouns in these four instances as well—a type of ROYAL WE, such as was employed by various kings over the ages. Thus, these interpret the plural pronouns as nothing more than a fancy way of speaking.

I don’t favor this idea for the same reason I reject the Trinitarian suggestion, YHWH does not appear to be speaking to himself. We also find no reference to such a practice in early Hebrew writing or culture. We do find such ploys of language in the Babylonian and Persian courts as represented in late texts like Daniel 2:36; Ezra 4:11; Ezra 4:18; Ezra 7:13; & Ezra 7:24, but not earlier during the era I accredit with the preserving and writing of Genesis.

3. The suggestion that I prefer is that these plural pronouns represent the DIVINE COUNCIL… all those spiritual entities that are a part of the other realm the non-material realm. This may include those beings we call angels, but it includes more than that. It is the one true God speaking of populating His creation with regents made in the image of Elohim.[2]

What we need to avoid when we read Scripture is the tendency to try to force Biblical texts into the mold of Christian Theology categories which developed over centuries in reaction to the church’s questions about God, Man and Reality. Each text must be read in its own context and in terms of its own categories. This is not always comfortable if we are looking for absolute answers to every question and also demand that those answers fit into the categories with which we have grown comfortable during our own Christian journey.

I am not a liberal theologian… I am very conservative… but I must still deal with the real context of biblical passages… they weren’t written by Evangelicals but by men like Abraham and Moses and David.


[1] Also, I write YHWH not Yahweh for the name of God because I studied Hebrew with a Rabbi and among sensitive Jewish students.

[2] Now, depending on how equipped you are to digest biblical theology, I might recommend the book WE BECOME WHAT WE WORSHIP: A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF IDOLATRY by Gregory Beale. It details the true nature of the statement “in our image.” There are meanings to this that are hard to detail here and now.

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